Group Study: God Is Forever

September 26th, 2011

Scripture: Psalm 90

Background Scripture: Psalm 90:1-12

Key Verse

Before the mountains were born, before you birthed the earth and the inhabited world—from forever in the past to forever in the future, you are God. Psalm 90:2 CEB

Focus

We want to live in such a way that at the end of our days we can say confidently, “My life was worthwhile.” What help is available to make the most of our days regardless of their number? Psalm 90 reminds us that though life is fleeting, we can live wisely with God’s eternal presence.

Goals

  1. to examine Psalm 90 to contrast humanity’s frailty and sinfulness with God’s enduring power and goodness.
  2. to cultivate thankfulness that God cares about how they can get the most out of the gift of life.
  3. to declare how their relationship with God gives lasting meaning and significance to their lives.

Pronunciation Guide

adamah (ad aw maw’)
hesed (kheh’ sed)

Understanding the Scripture

Introduction

The central subject of Psalm 90 is time. It deals with the brevity of human life—there is too little time. But most importantly, the psalm asks how to live life in light of the certainty of death and the fleeting nature of human existence. Part of the answer is to focus first on the eternality of God, the one who gives life (90:1) and makes life purposeful (90:17).

Psalm 90 has an important location in the Book of Psalms. It is the first psalm in Book Four of the Psalter (the Psalms are divided into five “books” or divisions: Book I: Psalms 1–41; Book II: Psalms 42–72; Book III: Psalms 73–89; Book IV: Psalms 90–106; Book V: Psalms 107–150). Book III was dominated by psalms that complained to God about Israel’s suffering. This ended with Psalm 89, a psalm that complained about the failure of the Davidic monarchy. Psalm 90 now begins a book of psalms that seems to answer that complaint with the assurance that “the LORD reigns” (Psalm 93:1 NIV).

Psalm 90 speaks about the brevity of human life in order to address a particular trauma Israel suffered, namely the Babylonian exile (587–539 B.C.). The brevity of life, the wrath of God (90:7, 9, 11), and humanity’s “toil and trouble” (90:10) are ciphers for Israel’s suffering. Isaiah 40 uses similar language and images to speak about this event.

Psalm 90 is the only psalm in the book of Psalms attributed to Moses (see the title of Psalm 90, “A Prayer of Moses, the man of God”). The titles of psalms were added later in order to provide context for reading them, either by associating them with a person (mostly with David) or with an event. The scribes who preserved the psalm understood it as a prayer for Israel when it was in distress and they imagined the prayer as the words of Moses. Who better to voice a prayer for God’s people in such a situation than Moses? Moses had prayed for Israel when God became angry with them in the wilderness (Exodus 32). Now in Psalm 90 Moses prays across the ages for Israel in exile.

Psalm 90:1-2

The first verse expresses confidence in God as the source of protection and care. “Dwelling place” is closely related to the term “refuge” which appears frequently in the Psalms (2:12; 34:8; 71:3). The claim about God here is very personal— the Lord is “our dwelling place” (italics added). The concern for time is also apparent from the start. The Lord has been our dwelling place “in all generations.” Verse 2, however, declares God’s greatness by pointing to God’s time. Before the world was put in order God was God.

Psalm 90:3-6

The second section of the psalm contrasts God’s eternality with humanity’s weakness. While God is eternal, we are made from dust and to dust we return. The word “mortals” (NRSV) reads woodenly “sons of men” in Hebrew (as NIV translates). “Men” (or better “humanity”) renders the word adam which is related to the word for earth or soil (adamah). There is nothing permanent about us. In fact, verses 5-6 compare human life to the herbage that sprouts with the morning dew and then fades away as soon as the sun strikes it (see similar images in Psalm 103:15-16 and Isaiah 40:6-8).

Psalm 90:7-12

Verses 7-11 continue to speak of humanity’s fleeting existence. But here the psalmist links the brevity of life with God’s wrath. Normally the Old Testament mentions God’s wrath as a way of saying God punishes people for their sins. In Psalm 90, however, the connection is different (though see the discussion of sinfulness under “The Reality of Death”). Death is a sign of God’s wrath in that it is God’s ultimate “no” to human pretensions to autonomy. This is a way of saying that eternity belongs to God alone. Verse 12 asks for help to respond properly to the knowledge that life is brief: “teach us to count our days.” “Count our days” does not mean to help us focus on the limited nature of life; rather, it means to cherish each day as a gift from God.

Psalm 90:13-17

The final portion of Psalm 90 shifts its language from reflection on the human condition to petitions for God to act concerning that condition. This section also takes on a distinctly “Mosaic” tone. Verse 13 recalls the prayer of Moses in Exodus 32 when he interceded for Israel when God was about to destroy the people because they had made the golden calf. The word, “turn” is exactly the word Moses used in Exodus 32:12. The word could also be translated “change your mind” or even “repent!” Only Moses and the prophet Amos (Amos 7:2, 5) make such a request of God.

Moses refers to Israel as “your servants” in verses 13 and 16. This label identifies Israel as subjects of God who identify with God as their king or “lord.” It is also important that the previous psalm (Psalm 89) gave this title to David (89:3, 20, 39, 50). Psalm 89 complained that God had rejected God’s servant by allowing his enemies to defeat him by defeating his line. The Babylonian exile brought an end to Israel’s monarchy and called into question the covenant with David (Psalm 89:39). One way Israel dealt with this trauma and the uncertain future for the Davidic monarchy was to speak of the whole people as God’s “servants,” as heirs to the promises to David. Psalm 89 complained that God removed God’s “steadfast love” from David (89:49). Now Psalm 90:14 petitions God to “satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love.” Steadfast love translates a Hebrew word, hesed, that cannot adequately be translated. It refers to the covenant faithfulness God shows to God’s people. Hence, NIV renders the term “unfailing love” in verse 14.

Interpreting the Scripture

O God, Our Dwelling Place

Although Psalm 90 may seem to be mainly about time, notably the lack of time humans have, the first two verses emphasize space as well and they focus on God rather than humans. Psalm 90:1 declares God has been “our dwelling place” (an emphasis on space) “in all generations” (an emphasis on time). Verse 2 begins with space (mountains, earth, and world) and ends with time (“from everlasting to everlasting”) as they relate to God.

These two verses therefore seem to have a structure that says something very important about God. Namely, the way verse 1 begins and verse 2 ends, with references to God’s identity, communicates the idea that God is all-encompassing. Both time and space are in God’s control. Hence, the limits of humans portrayed in verses 3-10 must be understood in relation to God’s unlimited power.

The Reality of Death

One of the most important and pervasive messages of Psalm 90:1-12 is that life is short. Death is near at hand. The psalm goes to great lengths to express that truth: our lives are like grass that “fades and withers” (90:6); “our years come to an end like a sigh” (90:9); our days “are soon gone, and we fly away” (90:10). That message may at first seem negative. It may seem even more depressing that our human limits are a sign of God’s wrath. Indeed, Psalm 90:1-12 may seem to run counter to the New Testament’s hopeful word that in Christ death has lost its sting (1 Corinthians 15:55). But in fact this psalm is entirely consistent with the message of resurrection. What it really says is that life and eternity belong to God, not to us. The emphasis on death is also closely tied to the awareness that we are sinful creatures. As verse 8 says, our sins are set before God. They are a sure sign of our limitations, our finitude. Therefore, our lives—and our resurrection—come from the Creator and giver of life. Psalm 90’s focus on death reins us in and reminds us that we live because God holds us in life.

This message of death’s certainty and of human limits may seem so obvious that it does not need to be stated. The Book of Psalms elsewhere, however, indicates that in fact many do not face this truth. For example, Psalm 36:2 speaks of those who “flatter themselves” and who believe their sinful deeds will not be noticed. They live as though they have total control of the world, as though they are not ultimately under God’s “wrath” (as Psalm 90:7-8 indicate). Although Psalm 90 does not use the term, other psalms call such people “wicked.” This label does not refer to persons who are morally deficient. After all, as Psalm 143:2 acknowledges, all people fail to meet God’s expectations. Rather, the word is used for those who do not admit their deficiencies. Those the Psalms call “righteous” are those who confess their sins and live in repentance (and are not self-righteous).

This ironic portrayal of the righteous and the wicked in the Psalms—which is implied in Psalm 90—has important implications for how we live. As the Psalms testify, those who refuse to admit their human limits (and refuse to confess their sins) inevitably act violently towards others. They take advantage of others because they believe they are entitled to more of the world than they really are (see again Psalm 36:3-4). But those who acknowledge that they live within the sovereignty of God are more willing to promote the well-being of others, as God intends. In other words, the perspective on human limitation Psalm 90 gives is not intended just to “put us in our place” in relation to God. It also helps us to live rightly towards other human beings.

The Gift of Life

If the main message of Psalm 90 is that God is eternal and we are not, then the wisdom of the psalm is in knowing how to react to that reality. The psalm’s main “advice” comes in verse 12: “teach us to count our days.” This line certainly does not mean to focus on how few days we have. Such a negative focus would rob us of the joy available to us in our days, however brief they may be. The context of the psalm also argues against the notion that we can count on longevity. Verse 10 declares that human life is short even for those who are physically sound. The wisdom of “counting our days” seems rather to be in recognizing that each day is a gift.

The message of Psalm 90:12 is captured well in the music of Christian folk musician David Bailey. At age 30 Bailey had a brain tumor that doctors said would end his life within six months. But he became one of the rare people who recover from such a tumor. Bailey returned to his music, which he had left for a corporate career, and now sings about hope and life, as a gift from God. One of the most important things he says he learned from his illness—even before he knew he would be cured—was not to ask “Why me?” but to ask “What now?” instead. That is really the message of Psalm 90:12. Instead of asking, “Why is my (and our) life so short,” it is better to ask, “What can I do with the life I have?” David Bailey expresses this in a song called “Love the Time.” The song emphasizes loving and cherishing each moment. We should love “the time it takes to watch the sunrise” and even the time it takes waiting in line, driving a child to school, any time we have we should find in it an opportunity to cherish the gifts of God. Our time, our lives, are surely such gifts.

If Psalm 90 is taken seriously as a prayer of Moses, it might lead us to think of and relate to Israel’s existence in the wilderness. Relying on God to provide manna, they had to live by faith each day. With this in mind, Psalm 90:12 might be translated “teach us to live day by day.” The point of this advice, and the point of Israel’s living on manna in the desert, is that life with God must be lived by faith. Living by faith means we recognize that God, who is eternal, watches over us and holds our future. Living by any other view of the world will lead us either to squander our days because we think they are unlimited or to fret over the brevity of life as though we could change it.

Understood this way, Psalm 90:1-12 gives very much the same perspective Jesus gave his disciples when he told them not to worry about tomorrow (Matthew 6:25-34). His point, of course, was not that we should avoid planning for the future nor that we should shirk our responsibilities. Rather, we must recognize that none of our preparation for or worry about the future will add a day to our lives. Instead of fretting over such things, Jesus insisted that with the time we have we strive for the kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33). Such striving shows that we know what to do with our lives. We know truly how to “count our days.”

Sharing the Scripture

Preparing Our Hearts

Explore this week’s devotional reading, found in 1 Timothy 1:12-17. Paul recalls the negative aspects of his prior life, but is grateful that through the mercy of Christ Jesus he has become a believer. He recognizes that “Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1:15). With that salvation comes eternal life. What about you? Do you recognize that while this earthly life is short, God exists for all eternity and that through Christ you can experience the joy of life in God’s presence forever? Offer a prayer of thanks for this amazingly good news. Pray that you and the group will recognize that you are children of the Creator of the universe.

Preparing Our Minds

Study the background Scripture from Psalm 90 and the lesson Scripture from Psalm 90:1-12. Think about where you can seek help to make the most of your life, however long it may be.

Leading the Group

  • Pray that all who have come will open their hearts and minds to the message God has for them today.
  • Read aloud today’s focus statement: We want to live in such a way that at the end of our days we can say confidently, “My life was worthwhile.” What help is available to make the most of our days regardless of their number? Psalm 90 reminds us that though life is fleeting, we can live wisely with God’s eternal presence.
  • Prepare the group to encounter Psalm 90 by reading or retelling the Introduction from Understanding the Scripture.
  • Invite the group to read Psalm 90:1- 12 responsively if you have access to a hymnal with a Psalter that includes these verses. If not, read these verses yourself as the others follow along in their Bibles. Option: Solicit volunteers who have different translations of the Bible to read these verses, or a portion of these verses, after the twelve verses have been read once. Talk with the group about how different words enable them to find new meanings.
  • Read “The Gift of Life” from Interpreting the Scripture. Music by David M. Bailey is mentioned as embodying ideas in Psalm 90. Encourage the group to name other songs, perhaps citing a specific line or two, that also relate to getting the most out of the life God has given us.
  • Distribute hymnals and ask the group to turn to “Now Thank We All Our God.” (If your hymnal does not include this hymn, check the Internet for the words, which were penned in the seventeenth century and are in the public domain.) Encourage the group to read the words silently, pausing at any that may especially speak to them. Or, read the words aloud yourself if participants do not have the words before them. Ask them to consider these questions, which you will read aloud. (1) What are the “gifts of love” with which “this bounteous God” has blessed you? (2) How do these gifts help you to get the most out of the life God has given you?
  • Encourage volunteers to name at least one gift for which they are thankful. What difference has this gift made in their lives?
  • Read these words that appeared in an Internet article entitled “Does God Matter: Questioning the Importance of God”: Austin Cline argues from the perspective of an unbeliever when he writes, “It can be argued that even if a god did exist, that existence would not provide either meaning or purpose to a person’s life. Christians seem to maintain that serving their god’s will is what gives them purpose, but I hardly think that this is admirable. Mindless obedience might be praiseworthy in dogs and other domesticated animals, but it certainly isn’t of much value in mature adult humans. Moreover, it is debatable whether or not a god which desires such uncritical obedience is worthy of any obedience in the first place.”
  • Challenge participants to discuss how they would respond to Mr. Cline. Encourage them to give specific examples from their own lives as to how they believe a relationship with God gives their lives meaning and significance.
  • Pray that the participants will go forth to share with others how their relationship with God gives meaning to their lives.
  • Sing or read aloud “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.”
  • Conclude today’s session by leading the group in this commission: We go forth to worship and serve the Lord our God. Thanks be to our merciful and gracious God.

Adapted from The New International Lesson Annual © 2010 Abingdon Press

comments powered by Disqus